Review: 'In the Last Days of the City' offers overworked portrait of chaotic Cairo

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News
“In the Last Days of the City” stars Khalid Abdalla as a filmmaker.

 There is undeniable visual poetry and power in “In the Last Days of the City,” but the film also exists in a bubble of indulgence that dilutes its impact.

First-time feature director Tamer El Said is making a film about the contradictions, beauty and strife in his hometown of Cairo in 2009. His protagonist is a filmmaker named Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) who is also making a film about the contradictions, beauty and strife of Cairo.

Khalid's best friends are three – what else? – filmmakers. One is from Beirut, another lives in Baghdad, the third has fled Baghdad for Berlin. They all seem to make films about the contradictions, beauty and strife in their respective habitats. How any of these people support themselves or whether their films have ever or will ever be shown to, you know, audiences, is never addressed.

Aside from not knowing where his film is heading, Khalid has a few other problems. He's looking for a new apartment. His mother is in a hospital suffering from some severely vague ailment. And his onetime girlfriend (Laila Samy) is moving away from Cairo, apparently tired of the city's repressive-chaotic nature.

Despite these personal dramas, Khalid is a pretty bland guy who seems to stumble through life in a state of low-key depression, often hiding behind his camera, disengaged. When he spies a man beating a woman from his upstairs apartment, Khalid begins filming the confrontation, rather than interceding.

Way to be alive, Khalid.

To be sure, many of the images El Said captures are telling. Late at night Khalid sees large-breasted female mannequins being shuffled about in a department store window; the next day the windows are covered in newspaper to protect the mannequins' modesty. Later they are clothed – some wear hijabs, others scant lingerie.

The old world-new world contrasts of the city are everywhere – an old woman drags a tarp of goods down the street as a hive of autos buzz past, chickens roost in an apartment for rent on a busy street, all manner of protests foreshadow the political upheavals to come, some old buildings brim with earned majesty while others are dilapidated near-ruins.

There's no lack of character in Cairo. But Khalid is a fairly wimpy guide and director El Said restlessly insists on tossing cinematic quirks and techniques into the film to the point of distraction. “In the Last Days of the City” may be a purposely amorphous portrait of a city in flux, but it's also somewhat anxiously, irritatingly overloaded.


“In the Last Days of the City”


Not rated

Running time: 118 minutes